Chuck Kearney has brought wrestling to the University of Saint Mary.

The long-time coach and former NCAA Division I head man came to Leavenworth a year ago to create a new program within the Spires’ athletic department and has seen a mixed bag of returns.

The men’s team, full of freshmen, opens the season Saturday at the Lyons Duals in Arkansas loaded with enthusiasm and belief that year one could be a good one.

The six-member women’s team started the season a few weeks ago and have had some strong results in their first three events.

Not a bad start for an embryonic program.

Kearney, a former wrestler at Oklahoma State, coached at the University of Oregon for 20 years – 10 years as head coach – before the program was discontinued (2008-2009). He came to USM because he wanted to get back into college coaching.

“When they discontinued the program at Oregon, I didn’t want to move my family around the country chasing college wrestling, I decided to do something else,” Kearney said, noting he began working with a high school program in Oregon. “I decided that when my youngest graduated from high school, if I still had the desire, I’d get back into it.”

Kearney put out feelers for the right fit and looked into a few NCAA DI, DII and NAIA programs.

“This seemed like the best fit,” Kearney said. “I like the idea of being some place starting and being a part of the program that died, it makes for a nice circle. I also like the people. I have a good feel for Rob Miller (USM athletic director), Jim Zimmerman, the faculty rep, and Troy Katen (assistant athletic director). The vision of what they expect a winning program is, is the same vision I have. 

“I also went to Oklahoma State so I have a lot of buddies in Tulsa and Stillwater and all over the place, so we are in the heart of wrestling. It seemed like a natural.”

Despite NCAA DI wrestling taking so many hits by way of discontinued programs, the smaller school programs remain healthy.

“At the NAIA and NCAA Division III level, there have been over 120 programs added, so there is a world of opportunity,” Kearney said. “In the state of Kansas, there are 17 schools with college wrestling. That’s fantastic.”

Twenty-four men – all but three are freshmen – have stepped up to become Spires and lend a blend of personalities and talent.

“We have a 33-year-old senior who is a captain in the U.S. Army here at Fort Leavenworth going to grad school and we have a whole bunch of freshmen,” Kearney said. “They are buying into our concept and our process. I was fortunate to have coached four of them in high school (Churchill) and one of them is my son (Justin) so we got some people who know the system and serve as technical leaders. We are excited about what we could be. We want to minimize the lumps and coach hard and work hard and cover some ground. It’s going to be a learning curve.

“We take pride in coaching good wrestling so we are looking for kids who are good athletes and want to learn. We want to find DI athletes and make us dominant at the NAIA level.”

The elder statesman, Chad Plaisted, used to wrestle with Kearney at Oregon (2006-2007) and moved on to the military. He ended up at the fort before bumping into Kearney and all of the pieces fell into place. He has at least one year of eligibility, but says the NAIA claims he has three, so they will look into the semantics of that.

“Even if it’s one year, it’s a blessing. I never thought it was going to happen,” Plaisted said. “It’s kind of neat being part of a brand new program. I get to play this kind of unique role of not being exactly a wrestler and not exactly a coach, I am something in between. Wrestling has been a huge part of my life. I did some high school coaching while I was in Indiana. … I feel like they are giving to me as much as I am giving to them.

“We will be wrestling against other kids who want to compete and have a passion for the sport.”

Freshman Riley Jaramillo likes Plaisted’s message and the direction of the team.

“It’s going great, we have a great team with great people and a great coach,” Jaramillo said. “The (school) has accepted us pretty well. We are going to have a good season this year.

“Chad’s awesome. I love Chad. He’s a great guy. He’s kind of our mentor. He helps coach everything he can.”

Kearney thinks the Spires have a shot to finish in the top three of the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) while Ottawa and Bethany have ruled the roost in recent years.

“Our objective is to jump into that upper echelon as fast as we can,” Kearney said.

He started with 14 women grapplers, but will go to battle with his super six.

“The six we have, we’re excited about, and we might have a couple coming over the holiday break and actually a couple more girls may be coming back to us (eventually),” Kearney said. “We are trying to find a mindset and freestyle is new to a lot of them.”

Freestyle wrestling rewards movement and exposure regardless of control while the more common collegiate scoring is all about control. Women’s matches will be all freestyle, while men are scored collegiately.

“In their first college wrestling match (one sophomore and five freshmen) we didn’t know what to expect, but we were excited with how they competed. It’s always about doing the process and doing the things possible to succeed. Of the 11 matches wrestled (at Bacone College on Oct. 8) we won five, lost six. Each girl wrestled twice except one. These girls want to compete, so we want as many matches as we can.

“We want to get them out of their comfort zone a little bit and learn how to win and how to lose.”

Kearney hopes to get his women on par with the national level by the time they graduate. With more prep programs popping up all over the country, his talent base should improve.

Right now, 38 colleges participate in the Women’s College Wrestling Association.

“We get along really well, especially since there are six of us on a team,” freshman and Texas native Alanis Naranjo said. “We have a good time working out and getting to know one another. We are all from different parts of the country, so it’s really cool. We want to win as a team even though we are small. We still want to go out and see how well we are going to do. With the conditioning that coach is giving us, it really prepares us for the two matches going back-to-back.

“(Women’s wrestling) isn’t as common as soccer or basketball, but it is something all girls should try because it makes you feel strong and gives you confidence.” 

Kearney believes the women’s game will expand at a higher level once an administration shows the courage to sanction the sport.

“Hopefully Arizona State or Iowa State or Oklahoma State say they are adding women’s wrestling,” Kearney said. “Once that happens it will take off.”